Sleep apnea is a condition that afflicts millions of people. There are two types of sleep apnea: central, and obstructive. Obstructive is by far the most common, and is usually what is referred to when people talk about sleep apnea. Obstructive sleep apnea occurs when, during sleep, the airway passages in the throat close and block the movement of air. Common symptoms are snoring, gasping during sleep, sleepiness during the day, and the overall feeling that your sleep was not restful.
While we all may have a laugh recalling that uncle or grandpa that was “sawing logs” all night when they slept over, the truth is that sleep apnea can have profound negative effects on overall health. Sleep apnea has been linked to stroke, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, and is an important contributor to deaths and injuries due to traffic accidents. The most common and effective treatment for sleep apnea is the use of a CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) device. As a sleep physician, and a CPAP user myself I know the importance of using your CPAP whenever you sleep, which includes during travel.
Whether I’m travelling across a state line or an equatorial line, whether the destination is medical education or a Mediterranean beach, my CPAP is along for the ride. Because of this, I’ve also run into pretty much every complication, problem, pitfall, morass, and quagmire that you can have when travelling with your CPAP. Thus I present to you, gleaned from both my experiences and those of my patients, my top 5 tips for travelling with your CPAP.
1. Bring your CPAP with you. This would seem obvious, but it’s not. A lot of people see their CPAP as an assistive device that they only need to use when they need it. But they really need to look at it for what it is: therapy. You take your hypertension and diabetes medicines with you when you travel, think of your CPAP the same way. Besides, if you’re travelling for business, you need to be sharp and focused. If you’re travelling for pleasure, well who wants to spend their hard earned vacation being tired and irritable? CPAP will help you get the most out your travels.
2. Don’t play “CPAP roulette.” Oh boy, did I learn this one the hard way. It had been ages since I had lost baggage on a flight. So during a recent long international flight, with our carry-ons overloaded with kid’s toys and baby supplies, I succumbed to the temptation. I stashed the machine in checked baggage and played CPAP roulette. As we boarded our United Airlines flight, the captain announced that our flight was overloaded, and some bags had to be removed. Guess which bag of ours didn’t make it? And that was how I spent the first two nights of our vacation in sleep apnea purgatory. Truly, don’t play CPAP roulette. And if you’re worried about going through TSA, don’t be. They are now very familiar with CPAP machines and can screen them very quickly. Rules change and sometimes they ask you to take them out of your carry on for screening, and sometimes they don’t. So to be ready, have your CPAP (just the machine, not the supplies) in an easily accessible place in your carry-on where you can take it out and put it back in quickly.
3. Power up. So you did everything right, you brought your CPAP, and you took it in your carry on (remember, I’m telling you things that have actually happened to me.) But now the only available power outlet is beyond the reach of your machine. This scenario is becoming less common as more hotels are making outlets available on the night stand. Surprisingly many places do not. The best way around this is to bring an extension cord or power strip that will allow you to plug in whatever you want, and more importantly place your CPAP where you need it. It has the added benefit that you can use it to share outlets at the airport to charge your smartphone. Also, if you are travelling internationally remember to bring a universal adaptor that will allow you to plug your CPAP into different types of outlets. Most CPAPs (refer to your power adaptor) can work on international 220 to 240 volts, converter is not absolutely necessary though it may help protect your machine from power spikes.
4. We definitely don’t want “the funk.” Having a clean mask and tubing is crucial to getting the most from your CPAP. And putting dirty equipment in the stagnant air of a suitcase can make the equipment somewhat, well, funky. It can also shorten the life of the equipment. And let’s face it, the last thing you want to do when you get to your destination is to have to clean you mask. So make sure you have new or clean equipment before you travel. Also, while you should typically use distilled water in your humidifier, no one wants to lug that around or go looking to buy some at their destination. It’s ok to use mineral water or tap water for short periods, but make sure that the humidifier if full of water and never goes completely empty. This will ensure that the minerals in the water do not leave a gunky residue in the reservoir. And be sure to clean the reservoir after using anything but distilled water.
5. Don’t forget Murphy’s Law. If you travel with your equipment enough, all that bending and stuffing to stick the tubing within the confines of your carry on will eventually cause the tubing to pop a leak. Using it thus would be akin to sleeping next to a constantly deflating balloon, or if you prefer, a constantly farting baboon (feel free to insert your own analogy in the comments). Ideally you would travel with spare tubing or masks, but this is not always possible. As with most of the world’s problems, the solution to this situation usually involves duct tape, so this is always a nice thing to have. I would also suggest that you keep the 800 number of your CPAP supplier handy in case you need to troubleshoot anything.
So there you have it, my top tips for travelling with CPAP. All of these tips are gleaned from either my own experiences or those of my patients. Feel free to share your own experiences or tips on travelling with CPAP in the comments below.
Deep Ramachandran is a pulmonary and critical care physician, and social media co-editor, CHEST. He blogs at CaduceusBlog and ACCP Thought Leaders, and can be reached on Twitter @Caduceusblogger.